This article is in continuation with the previous articles in this series, dwelling upon the central theme of dysfunctional leadership - leaders negatively affecting the organizational effectiveness. While the current concern is generic in nature and affects a large set of organizations in varied contexts, the article attempts to narrow down two specific contexts, wherein this problem manifests to an extent that it is detrimental to the survival of the organization. Typically, the efforts in hiring a leader are directed towards finding the best qualified for the job; and the best usually implies finding someone who is technically competent with the best in class education and the best pedagogy of work and organizations. What gains the least priority is an assessment of the culture that this person has been raised into; what will subsequently become an enabler of all that makes him the best fit for the role.
A large number of teams and organizations are built around this chosen one, who is expected to be technically superior and set new standards of organizational performance; he is expected to push the overall team to new thresholds of performance. This is conventional wisdom and does yield dividends to some extent. However, after having closely observed many teams and organizations going through a process like this, I have come across multiple instances wherein this process goes completely wrong; mostly because the best qualified person lacks the leadership to make it happen.
Let me elaborate the process further in the specific context of modern day organizations; one is a tech start-up and the other is an off-shore design centre for a hi-tech organization (start-up in the off-shore context). All start-up organizations go through a learning process of their own. This learning process is important to test their initial assumptions and make the necessary changes to their hypothesis. The concerned Leader in this case came across as a “know all” person and had a pre-defined solution to all problems facing the organization. It was as if he had already been in similar organizations with similar problems. Consequently, he deprived the team of the crucial learning process – defining the problem and solution finding. Needless to discuss the impact of the Leader’s intervention on the overall organization performance, as we are more concerned with a crucial process going missing in the organization’s evolution. Predictably, the team never developed the learning curve and at one point in time, the talent of their leader did not suffice. They had no solutions to their new problems as the talent of their leader had solved all their problems till this point. They were staring at a certain death, with or without their leader.
In the second case, an off-shore design centre of a hi-tech company got a new leader. The mandate for the leader was to ensure that the design centre steps up to the next level in terms of quality of delivery. His last assignment was with an industry leader and he had the best pedagogy of engineering research and development. He was very quick to identify the gaps in competencies of the centre and knew where the team should operate in terms of quality. To begin with, he discarded all people and processes that he did not seem fit with his benchmark quality. Subsequently, he pushed the team hard to deliver at the new levels of quality, with no room for errors. Herein the same story was repeated all over again. The crucial steps in the understanding and evolution of quality were ignored to leap frog into the Leader’s benchmark quality level. The setting up of high benchmark quality levels ensured that the team would fail to start with. Obsession with quality ensured that there is no room for error - depriving the team of the crucial learning process of defining the problem and solution finding. Predictably, the team never developed the learning curve required to appreciate quality and aspire for the next quality levels. What resulted was serious disengagement with the leader and an absolute rejection of a kind.
There were some obvious parallels between the two personalities. Both of them were certainly among the best in their field of work. They had gone to the best of the schools and universities. They had always worked for the best of the companies in their industry. So essentially, they had always been with the best of the people and processes. Consequently, they had set their benchmarks very high and could not relate to the more ordinary. The pursuit of excellence is a state of mind and excellence evolves through the essential processes of learning and making mistakes. Both were leaders more with the traditional directive style, and seemed completely out of place in a modern day organization like a start-up or a hi-tech design centre. Their sense of purpose came from the huge talent at their disposal and not as enablers of the talent of others. The modern day leader has to be an enabler of the talent, and that is possible only if he is able to appreciate the crucial processes of learning. This would require individuals to go through the cycles of problem finding and solution finding and leaders to enable this process rather than be prescriptive about their solutions.